“From the time I got my first library card
I wanted to read all the books in the world."
"If you don't remember nothing else I tell
you, baby, you remember this: if you got to dance or dream or
anything at all, take it a step at a time and don't let nothing
and nobody get in your way when you doing right. I ain't saying
it's gonna be easy, but we all got a dance to do. You remember
this, you hear?" --The Big Mama
Shay Youngblood is best known for her three
enthralling texts, The Big Mama Stories, Soul Kiss
and her most recent novel, Black Girl in Paris.
Youngblood was born in Columbus, Georgia and has been fascinated
with the written word since she first learned how to read.
Reading has been one of Shay Youngblood's most
enjoyed activities since the moment, as a child, when she could
first understand the words on the page. "The best dream I've
ever had, next to the flying dream," she writes, "was the
one in which I lived in a library." The author takes long
walks several times a week equipped with a pen and a small
notebook to capture inspiration. "When I'm deep in a writing
project, I take my characters for a walk daily. I clear my mind
of everything and try to figure out problems in a scene or just
try to let my characters talk to me or to each other, and I
write down what they say." The most frightening book that
Youngblood has ever read was THE END OF ALICE by A. M.
Homes. "The author created a character and a world so
believable, so disturbing, so graphic in its visual and
emotional violence," Youngblood says with a shudder,
"that after I read it, I couldn't go to sleep with the book in
my house." (check link on FemmeNoir)
As a young adult Youngblood attended
Clark-Atlanta University from which she received a BA in Mass
Communications in 1981. She went on to earn a MFA (Master of
Fine Arts) in Creative Writing from Brown University in 1993.
In addition to writing, Youngblood has worked as public
information assistant for WETV in Atlanta and as an agriculture
information officer with the Peace Corps in the Dominican
Youngblood has taught creative writing at the Syracuse Community
Writer's Project, and playwriting at the Rhode Island Adult
Correctional Institution for Women and at Brown University. Ms.
Youngblood currently lives in New York where she teaches
Creative Writing at the New School for Social Research.
Youngblood is recognized as a poet,
playwright, fiction writer, and has also written, produced and
directed two short videos. She also won a Pushcart Prize for
her short story, "Born With Religion." Other awards on
Youngblood's impressive list include; the Lorraine Hansberry
Playwriting Award, the Astraea Writes' Award and several NAACP
Theater Awards. Along with being a writer, she has taught
writing at the Syracuse Community Writer's Project, playwriting
at the Rhode Island Adult Institution for Women and Brown
University. She now resides in New York where she is now
teaching creative writing at the New York School for Social
Research. She is a member of the Dramatists' and Authors'
Guild, the National Writers' Union, and the Writers' Guild of
The Big Mama Stories
Many elements of Shay Youngblood's life are
reflected in her fiction. Like many of her heroines, Youngblood
herself was an orphan at an early age. When her mother died
Youngblood was raised by a community family: grandfathers,
uncles and many women with similarities to those described in
The Big Mama Stories and the play "Shakin' the Mess Outta
Misery." The 'mamas' that raised Youngblood taught her "how to
be an independent free-thinking person" (Lambda interview) and
much about the art of storytelling. A college trip to Haiti and
her time spent as an agriculture information officer in the
Peace Corps heightened her political awareness that is apparent
in much of her writing.
Youngblood states that her first published
text, The Big Mama Stories is the closest to autobiographical of
all of her works. The compilation of short stories focus around
the coming of age of a poor, young African-American girl named
Chile. Chile's biological mother, Fannie Mae, has died and so
Chile and her brother go to live with a woman called "Big Mama,"
who raises the children with the help of the entire community.
Of these community members, many are women who
all help Chile into womanhood through fascinating stories. The
story culminates after Chile gets her first period and the Mamas
"take her to the river" for a sacred ceremony. This ceremony
consists of Chile's many caregivers presenting her with gifts
such as African scarves and a Bible. Chile is then anointed with
oil and blessed by each mama. As fun, entertaining and touching
as the stories are, it is the opinion of some that the writing,
as the voice of a pre-adolescent child, is not entirely
believable and sometimes feels obvious that an educated adult is
speaking rather than an uneducated child.
Soul Kiss, Youngblood's haunting debut novel
which nominated her for the Quality Paperback Book New Voices
Award, tells the tale of a broken youth who experiences
childhood in troubled fragments of time, during a radical time
in history. It drips with poetic heaviness and leaves the reader
aching with a richness that can't quite be defined. At times,
the erotic tone and irony may leave the reader feeling
uncomfortable and overwhelmed. However, one can't help feeling
but immeasurable tenderness towards lonely Mariah Santos. One
wishes to take her in our arms and swallow her pain away.
Youngblood's writing is filled to the heart with honest language
that flows with an urgency that compels the reader to hungrily
devour the book while forcing oneself to let the sad but lyrical
words to settle.
Black Girl in Paris
In Shay Youngblood's second novel, Black Girl
in Paris, she gives a tour guide through the dreamy streets of
Paris as followed by the main character Eden. Eden has fled the
deep American South, in search of a childhood dream of a
color-blind, liberal atmosphere in which to develop as a writer.
The reader gets to delight in Eden's excitement and fear while
she clumsily maneuvers through all-new experiences abroad, while
encountering metaphorical caricatures along the way. It is the
way Youngblood so vividly and beautifully displays these
caricatures that allows them and Paris to come alive.
This novel conjures a multitude of feelings
and a varied array of emotions and ideas. This story contains,
in addition to its literary merits, a profusion of cultural,
political, racial and ethnic ideologies. If this book is viewed
as a travel guide, many areas of familiarity, as well as
unfamiliarity can be encountered. Youngblood uses the metaphor
of following a map repeatedly throughout the story. In this
novel, Youngblood boldly weaves together ideas of political
thought while balancing encounters of intimacy that bring
Youngblood's character a subtle sense of hope and beauty at
times and places where she needs it most.
2002 Interview with Shay Youngblood:
Barnes & Noble Interview: